Tim Buschman and Sabine Kastner review work on visual attention and propose a new theory that ties together a wide range of observations.  Here’s an outline of the theory in their own words:

  1. Attention can either be (a) automatically grabbed by salient stimuli or (b) guided by task representations in frontal and parietal regions to specific spatial locations or features.
  2. The pattern-completion nature of sensory cortex sharpens the broad top-down attentional bias, restricting it to perceptually relevant representations. Interactions with bottom-up sensory drive will emphasize specific objects.
  3. Interneuron-mediated lateral inhibition normalizes activity and, thus, suppresses competing stimuli. This results in increased sensitivity and decreased noise correlations.
  4. Lateral inhibition also leads to the generation of high-frequency synchronous oscillations within a cortical region. Inter-areal synchronization follows as these local oscillations synchronize along with the propagation of a bottom-up sensory drive. Both forms of synchrony act to further boost selected representations.
  5. Further buildup of inhibition acts to “reset” the network, thereby restarting the process. This reset allows the network to avoid being captured by a single stimulus and allows a positive-only selection mechanism to move over time.

Makes a lot of sense.
Buschman, Timothy J., and Sabine Kastner. “From Behavior to Neural Dynamics: An Integrated Theory of Attention.” Neuron 88.1 (2015): 127-144.

About the Author

The Miller Lab uses experimental and theoretical approaches to study the neural basis of the high-level cognitive functions that underlie complex goal-directed behavior. ekmillerlab.mit.edu